Chapter Nine: Al-Farabi

Life and works

What little information there is about the life of Abu Nasr al-Farabi comes mostly from medieval Arabic biographers whose writings date from the fourth/tenth to the seventh/ thirteenth centuries. The earliest account in Ibn al-Nadim’s (d. 380/990) Kitab al-fithrist gives only minimal information about al-Farabi’s life; later accounts add to these bare bones extensive lists of his writings, information about his teachers and pupils and a few anecdotes of dubious reliability. Al-Farabi was probably of Turkish origin, born around 257/870 in Farab in Turkestan. Although the details of his early education are murky, he is reported to have studied logic in Baghdad under the Christian scholars Yuhanna ibn Haylan (d. 910) and Abu Bishr Matta (d. 940), one of the translators of Aristotle’s works into Arabic.

Since the School of Baghdad was the principal there in the Arabic world to the philosophical and medical tradition of Alexandria, al-Farabi’s connection with these teachers forged one of the earliest links between Greek philosophy and the Islamic world.Al-Farabi himself is listed as the teacher of Yahya ibn Adi (d. 974), another of the important Christian translators and a noted logician in his own right. Al-Farabi is also reported to have taught logic to the grammarian Ibn al-Sarraj, who in turn instructed al-Farabi in the science of Arabic grammar (Ibn Abi Usaybi ‘ah (1965): 606; Zimmermann, Introduction to al-Farabi (1981a): cxviiicxxii).

Although there are numerous anecdotes told about al-Farabi’s subsequent life and death by the later biographers, their historical accuracy is suspect.Al-Frarabi appears to have left Baghdad for Syria in 330/942, travelling to Aleppo and Damascus, and perhaps also to Egypt, between 339/942 and 337/948. He then returned to Damascus, where he died in 339/950.

From the lists of writings provided by the medieval biographers, al-Farabi’s philosophical output appears to have been enormous, with over one hundred works being credited to him (Walzer (1965): 780).

If these lists are accurate, only a small portion of al-Farabi’s writings has survived.

Many of these have only recently become available in modern editions, so the interpretation of al-Farabi’s work is continually being revised. By far the largest part of al-Farabi’s writings is dedicated to logic and the philosophy of language.

Indeed, al-Farabi’s logical acumen is mentioned as the basis of his great renown by a number of the medieval biographers, and the philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun (732/1332-808/1406 claimed that it was principally because of his logical achievements that al-Farabi was dubbed the “second teacher” (al-mu ‘allim al-thani), second, that is, only to Aristotle himself (Nasr (1985): 359-60). Apart from his logical writings, which include both independent treatises and commentaries on Aristotle, al-

Farabi also wrote extensively on political philosophy and the philosophy of religion, which he treated as a branch of political philosophy, on metaphysics and on psychology and natural philosophy. 4

Logic, phIilosophy of language and epistemology

Al-Farabi’s writings on logic and the philosophy of language include both loose commentaries on the Aristotelian Organon and independent treatises. In the former category al-Farabi produced a full set of epitomes of the Organon, including, as had been the custom since the days of the Alexandrian commentators, Porphyry’s Isagoge and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics (al-Farabi 1959; 1986-7). He also wrote a great commentary (sharh) on the De interpretation (al-Farabi 1960a; 1981a). His epitomes are not detailed efforts at exegesis of the Aristotelian texts, or mere summaries of them, but take their overall organization and inspiration from Aristotle while developing personal interpretations of Aristotelian logic and the school tradition that had developed from it. Of his more personal writings, the Kitab al-huruf (“Book of Letters” al-Farabi 1969b) and Kitab alalfaz al-musta‘malah fi’l-mantip (“Book of Utterances Employed in Logic”, al-Farabi 1968a) are also devoted in large part to logical and linguistic topics, emphasizing the need to understand the relationship of philosophical terminology to ordinary language and grammar. 5

One of the overriding concerns of al-Farabi’s logical writings is to delineate precisely the relationship between philosophical logic and the grammar of ordinary language. The historical reality of the importation of philosophy into Arabic from a foreign language and culture, that of ancient Greece, and the attendant difficulties created by the need to invent a philosophical vocabulary in Arabic, had made this issue of paramount importance for the earliest Arabic philosophers, including al-Farabi’s own teachers and pupils. In addition to this, they including al-Farabi’s own teachers and pupils. In addition to this, the linguistic focus of much of Aristotelian logic produced territorial disputes with the practitioners of the indigenous science of Arabic grammar, who were concerned that the philosopher’ interest in Greek logic was nothing but an attempt to substitute the grammar of Greek for the grammar of Arabic Al-Farabi’s logical and linguistic writings represented one of the most systematic efforts to harmonize these competing approaches to the study of language.

Throughout his linguistic writings, al-Farabi upholds a conception of logic as a sort of universal grammar that provides those rules that must be followed in order to reason correctly in any language whatsoever.

Grammar, on the other hand, is always confined to providing the rules established by convention for the use of the particular language of a particular culture. As al-Farabi puts it in a well-known passage from his Ihsa’al-‘ulum (“Catalogue of the Sciences”), “this art (of logic) is analogous to the art of grammar, in that the relation of the art of logic to the intellect and the intelligible is like the relation of the art of grammar to language and expressions. That is, to every rule for expressions which the science of grammar provides us, there is a corresponding (rule) for intelligible which the science of logic provides us” (al-Farabi (1968b): 68).

By arguing in this way that logic and grammar are two distinct, rule-based sciences, each with its own proper domain and subject matter, al-Farabi strives to establish logic as an autonomous philosophical study of language that complements, rather than conflicts with, traditional grammatical science. But though logic and grammar remain distinct and autonomous sciences, al-Farabi also holds that the logician and the philosopher are dependent upon the grammarian for their ability to articulate their doctrines in the idiom of a particular nation. Hence “the art of grammar must be indispensable for making known and alerting us to the principles of the art (of logic)” (al-Farabi (1987): 83; Black (1992): 48-56). Al-Farabi’s Kitab al-alfaz is one attempt to implement this co-operation of logic with grammar. It illustrates, however, the extent of indendence from conventional grammatical constaints that the logician still retains in al-Farabi’s scheme. For while the text opens with a declaration of the need to classify Arabic Particles along logically perspicuous lines, it goes on to make the bold assertion that the classification of particles offered by the Arabic grammarians themselves is inadequate for this purpose, thereby forcing al-Farabi to borrow the underlying grammatical theory from the works of Greek grammarians, a declaration hardly likely to appease the champions of Arabic grammatical theory (al-Farabi (1968a): 48; Black (1992): 77-83).

The Kitab al-huruf shows another facet of al-Farabi’s approach to the philosophy of language. It opens with an extended classification of Arabic particles in relation to the Aristotelian categories. The discussions of individual particles in turn explore the relation between popular uses of these terms in non-philosphical Arabic and the modifications they undergo when they are transformed into technical philosophical terms (al-Farabi (1969b): 61-130; see Druart (1987b) for a study of al-Farabi’s treatment of jawhar (“substance”).

The second part of the texts presents a discussion of the origins of language, the history of philosophy, and the relations between philosophy and religion. One of its purposes is to situate the more is to situate the more abstract linguistic discussion into a historical and anthropological context, explaining how language itself originates and branches out into popular and technical forms. The theme of the relations between philosophy and religion is also cast in linguistic terms. Religion is viewed as the expression of philosophical truth in popular language, using the tools provided by the logical arts of rhetoric and poetics. There is also a normative side to this discussion, in so far as it lays out the ideal scenario for the development of a philosophical vocabulary from ordinary language, and for the establishment of a religion suitable for translating the fruits of that philosophy back into popular terms. In passages that are meant to evoke the historical reality of Islam’s encounter with Greek philosophy, al-Farabi also identifies and ranks a variety of possible deviations from the ideal development pattern, in which neither the philosophy not the religion of a nation springs from its indigenous linguistic and logical development; they are instead imported from another culture (ibid.: 131-61). In the third and final part of the kitab al-huruf al-Farabi returns to the theme of phlosphical terminology, offering an elaborate classification of interrogative particles, their uses in different types of philosophical inquiry and their relations to the types of explanations offered by Aristotle’s four causes (ibid.: 162-266).

Although a large proportion of al-Farabi’s logical output is dedicated to logical linguistic topics, he also made important contributions to the formal aspects of logic, such as syllogistics, the theory of demonstration and related epistemological issues. A predominant strand in al-Farabi’s logic and epistemology is the adoption of a hierarchical interpretation of the syllogistic arts (including rhetoric and poetics), in which demonstration is identified as the proper method of philosophy, and all communication. This strand is most evident in those writings where al-Farabi is echoing the logical theory of the Alexandrian commentators, although it is also closely linked to al-Farabi’s personal teaching that religion is a popular imitation of philosophy whose tools are the non-demonstrative arts (Black (1990): 1-19, 31-51, 63-71, 78-94). An One important facet of this interpretation is al-Farabi’s analysis of the certitude in terms of what we would now call second-order knowledge, arguing that certitude comprises both (1) a belief that the truth to which we have assented cannot be otherwise; and (2) a belief, in addition to this, that no other belief that the one held is possible. (Al-Farabi adds that this process can in fact go on ad infinitum.) Certitude, in short, requires no merely out knowing that something is the case but also our knowledge that we know it (al-Farabi (1986-7), 4:20). Having defined certitude in this way, al-Farabi is able to free it from its traditional modal interpretation, thereby allowing for the existence of both necessary certitude, in which what one believes to be the case cannot be otherwise at any time; and non-necessary certitude, which is certitude “only at some (particular) time”.

Necessary certitude requires an object which exists necessarily and immutably; non-necessary crtitude does not: “Necessary certitude and necessarily certain is necessarily existent” (ibid. 22).

Despite this broadening of the notion of certitude, al-Farabi holds with Aristotle that demonstration in the strictest sense pertains only to matters that can be known with necessary certitude. But al-Farabi has none the less added a new dimension to the theory of demonstration that takes account of the subjective element within certitude - one’s awareness of and knowledge that one knows - as well as the more traditional objective element rooted in the necessity and immutability of the object known.

Psychology and philosphy of mind

With the exception of his Risalah fi’l-‘aql (“Treatise on the Intellect”), al-Farabi left no indendent treatises on philosophical psychology and the philosophy of mind. His views on these topics are contained in his metaphysical and political writings. The most detailed presentation of his views on the human soul occurs in the Madadi’ ara’ ahl al-madinah al-fadilal (“Principles of the Opinions of the People of the Virtuous City”), where al-Farabi adopts an Aristotoelian approach to psychology. The soul’s principal faculties are identified as the nutritive, sensitive, imaginative and rational; they are ordered hierarchically to one another, and within each there are “ruling” and “subordinate” elements. Al-Farabi does not separate the common sense off as a distinct faculty, but treats it simply as the ruling faculty within the sensible soul “in which everything that is apprehended by (the five senses) is collected” (al-Farabi (1985): 166-9). Nor does al-Farabi have any doctrine of “internal senses” The kitab al-buruf shows another facet of al-Farabi’s approach to the philosophy of language. 6 It opens with an extended classification of Arabic particles in relation to the Aristotelian categories. The discussions of individual particles in turn explore the relations between popular uses of these terms in non-philosophical Arabic and the modifications they undergo when they are transformed into technical philosophical terms (al-Farabi (1969b): 61-130; see Druart (1987b) for a study of al-Farabi’s treatment of jawhar (“substance”).

The second part of the text presents a discussion of the origins of language, the history of philosophy, and the relations between philosophy and relation. One of its purposes is to situate the more abstract linguistic discussions into an historical and anthropological context, explaining how language itself originates and branches out into popular and technical forms. The theme of the relations between philosophy and religion is also cast in linguistic terms.

Religion is viewed as the expression of philosophical truth in popular language, using the tools provided by the logical arts of rhetoric and poetics. There is also a normative side to this discussion, in so far as it lays out the ideal scenario for the development of a philosophical vocabulary from ordinary language, and for the establishment of a religion suitable for translating the fruits of the philosophy back into popular terms. In passages that are meant to evoke the historical reality of Islam’s encounter with Greek philosophy, al-farabi also identifies and ranks a variety of possible deviations from the ideal development pattern, in which neither the philosophy nor the religion of a nation springs from its indigenous linguistic and logical development; they are instead imported from another culture (ibid.: 131-61). In the third and final part of the Kitab al-huruf al-Farabi returns to the theme of philosophical terminology, offering an elaborate classification of interrogative particles, their uses in different types of philosophical inquiry and their relation to the types of explanations offered by Aristotle’s four causes (ibid: 162-226).

Although a large proportion of al-Farabi’s logical output is dedicated to linguistic topics, he also made important contributions to the more formal aspects of logic, such as syllogistics, the theory of demonstration and related to the status of tools for non-philosophical communication.

This strand is most evident in those writings where al-Farabi is echoing the logical theory of the Alexandrian commentators, although it is also closely linked to al-Farabi’s personal teaching that religion is a popular imitation of philosophy whose tools are the non-demonstrative arts (Black (1990): 1-19, 31-51, 63-71, 78-94). An to unify his treatment of the common sense, imaginative and memorative faculties, and he does not mention anything like the faculty that Ibn SIna (Avicenna) will later call “estimation” (wahm). 10 Like Aristotle, he locates the physiological seat of the common sense and the imagination in the heart, a tradition that later internal sense philosophers will modify in the light of Galenic physiology, placing the organs of these faculties in the brain. As for the appetitive activities of the soul, al-Farabi views them as intimately tied to the activities of the corresponding cognitive powers which give rise to them. Thus, for every cognitive faculty-sensation, imagination and reason-an a petition towards the objects perceived naturally supervenes upon their acts of all sensible and rational voluntary acts, but it does not serve to explain the actual arousal which the soul controls the body, enabling it to seek what the soul perceives as desirable, and to flee what it perceives as harmful.

Al-Farabi’s view of the imaginative faculty deserves special attention because of the role assigned to imagination in prophecy and divination. According to al-Farabi, imagination (takhayyul, equivalent to Aristotle’s phantasia) is a retentive and a judgmental faculty, responsible both for the retention of the images of sensible things after they have absented themselves from the senses and for exercising control over them by composing and dividing them to form new images (ibid.: 168-9). To these two functions al-Farabi, also adds a third function, that of imitation (muhakah), using the Arabic term equivalent to mimesis as it had been used in Aristotle’s Poetics. By means of this ability, the imaginative faculty is able to represent objects with the images of other objects, and thereby to extend its representative ability beyond the depiction of sensible qualities to encompass the imitation of bodily temperaments, emotions and desires, and even immaterial realities (ibid.: 211-19). This mimetic ability of the imagination provides the psychological underpinnings of al-Farabi’s claim in his logical writings that the art of poetics has as its goal the evocation of acts of imagination, takhyil. In the context of psychology, al-Farabi also employs it to explain prophecy and divination. To understand this explanation, however, one must first understand al-farabi’s conception of the rational faculty and the process of intellectual cognition.

Al-Farabi’s account of the faculties and stages which characterize intellectual cognition belongs to a tradition of interpreting Aristotle’s de anima that goes back to the Greek commentators. Within this tradition, Aristotle’s rather loose descriptions in DE anima, 3.4 and 5 of an intellect which “becomes all things” and an intellect “which makes all things” are given the standard labels “potential” and “agent” intellect. 11 The potential intellect is identified as a faculty within the individual human soul; the agent intellect, however, is treated as an immaterial, eternal substance that functions as the efficient, moving cause of human intellection, enabling universal concepts to be abstracted from sensible images.

In addition to the potential and agent intellects, this tradition also identified a variety of distinct stages between potency and actualization within the human intellect and affixed them with own labels. In al-

Farabi’s psychology, this development yieds four different meaning for the term “intellect” (‘aql):12 (I) the potential intellect (al-‘aql bi’l-quwwah); (2) the actual intellect (al-‘aql bi’l-fi’l); (3) the acquired intellect (al-‘aql al-mustafad); and (4) the agent intellect (al-‘aql al-fa’al). Following Alexander of Aphrodisias, al-Farabi identifies the potential intellect as a pure disposition for abstracting the forms or quiddities of the object to be known from their corresponding sensible images. As this potential intellect comes to acquire intelligible concepts, it passes from pure potency into actuality, and thus becomes the second type of intellect, an actual intellect. The process of actualizing intelligible is of course a gradual one, which has at its goal the acquisition of all the intelligible and all the sciences available to human knowledge. When eventually the intellect reaches this goal (which probably only few individuals can achieve), it loses all remaining tinges of potency, and thus is rendered pure form and pure actuality.

Since on Aristotelian principles anything is intelligible to the degree that it is form and actuality, only at this point does the intellect realize its full capacity for selfcontemplation.

This, then, marks the attainment of the third stage of intellect, the acquired intellect. At this stage, by virtue of having become fully actualized, the individual human intellect attains a rank akin to that of the other immaterial intellects, including the agent intellect, and becomes one or similar in species with them. As a consequence, it is now able to contemplate not only itself and the intelligible it has acquired from material things, but also the agent intellect and the other separate, immaterial substances (al-Farabi (1985) 196-207, 240-5; (1948): 12-32 and (1973): 215-20; see also Davidson (1972): 134-54; Jolivet (1977).

This last consequence of the doctrine of the acquired intellect is upheld, with only minor variations, in all of al-Farabi’s extant discussions of intellectual cognition, and it is implied by the eschatological theories of his political philosophy (discussed under “Practical Philosophy” below). But mention must be made of the conflicting evidence provided by later philosophers such as Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Bajjah, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who tell us that in a commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics al-Farabi repudiated the possibility of a direct cognitional union or “conjunction” (ittisal) with the agent intellect (see Pines (1972)).

More precisely, according Averroes al-Farabi rejected the ontological transformation that the doctrine appeared to require, that is, its assertion that, through intellectual development, a generable and corruptible mortal human being could become and eternal and incorruptible separate intellect (Ibn Rushd (1953): 433, 481, 485). How al-Farabi would have reconciled this claim with the doctrines expressed in his surviving works, and whether it represents al-Farabi’s mature and considered view on the matter, must remain an open question, however, given the lamentable loss of the Nichomachean Ethics commentary itself.

Against the backdrop of al-Farabi’s teachings on the acquired and agent intellects, and on the imaginative faculty, the psychological aspects of his theory of prophecy can now be outlined. According al-Farabi, prophecy in its various manifestations is the result of an interaction between the intellect and the mimetic capacities of the imaginative faculty. What makes prophetic knowledge unique is not its intellectual content per se, for that belongs equally to the philosopher and the prophet: true prophecy, like the true religion based upon it, is a symbolization and imitation of the selfsame truths known demonstratively and intellectually in philosophy? But all prophets possess, in addition to their intellectual capacities, the gift of an especially keen imaginative faculty. This gift allows their imaginations to receive an influx or emanation of intelligible from the agent intellect, an emanation that is normally reserved for the intellectual faculty alone. Since by its nature the imagination cannot, however, receive abstract intelligible as abstract, the prophet exploits the mimetic abilities of the imagination to represent these intelligible in concrete, symbolic form. In this way, what is normally available only to the select few who can attain the level of the acquired intellect can be communicated by the prophet, under the guise of sensory images, to a much wider, non-philosophical public (al-Farabi (1985): 210-27, 240-7; see also Rahman (1958), Walzer (1962), Macy (1986), Daiber (1986b).

Metaphysics

Al-Farabi’s metaphysical teachers have posed certain interpretive difficulties to modern scholars, not only because of the attribution to him of the works mentioned above which are now generally believed to reflect Avicenna teaching but also because of the ambiguity of the attitude he takes in his authentic writings towards Aristotelian and Neo-Platonist metaphysics. Recent scholarship has shown that al-Farabi very carefully avoids mentioning Neo-Platonistemanation metaphysics in his accounts of Aristotelian philosophy, and that, with the exception of the Kitab al-jam ‘(“Harmonization of the Opinions of Plato and Aristotle”, al-Farabi (1960b), he never treats the spurious Theology of Aristotle as an authentic work. The most observations is that recently proposed by Druart, arguing that al-Farabi personally upheld the emanation cosmology central to Neo-Platonism, even while he recognized that it was not Aristotelian.

Emanation was, in short, adopted to fill in the lacuna that al-Farabi felt had been left by Aristotle’s failure to complete his account of the part of metaphysics that comprises theology or divine science, in which the causal relations between divine and natural being is set forth (Druart 1987a).

Viewed from this perspective, al-Farabi’s emanation theories form an integral part of his contribution to the discussion within Islamic philosophy of the nature and scope of metaphysics and its relation to natural philosophy. Al-Farabi’s influence on subsequent developments in this area is attested to in a well-known episode from Avicenna’s autobiography, in which Avicenna relates how he had read Aristotle’s Metaphysics forty times and yet still remained confused as to its purpose.

Only after chancing upon a copy of al-Farabi’s opusculum Fi aghrad al-Hakim fi kitab al-huruf (“On the Aims of Aristotle’s Metaphysics”) was his perplexity finally dissolved. Although Avicenna does not make explicit exactly how al-Farabi’s exceedingly short treatise resolved his mental impasse, it appears that Avicenna was impressed by al-Farabi’s remarks regarding the relationship between Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the science of theology or “divine science” (al-‘ilm al-ilahi).

For al-Frabi opens his treatise by noting that while Aristotelian metaphysics is often described as “divine science”, the text is in fact dedicated to the study of being and its principles and properties, not to the study of divine, separate substances. Al-Farabi observes that many readers have been confused by this point, expecting the entire text to be about God, the soul and the intellect, and finding that these topics are all but missing, save from book lambda (Gutas (1988): 238-42). Al-Farabi then proceeds to outline conception properties of being qua being. He affirms that theology is indeed a part of this science, not as its primary subject but rather only to the extent that “God is a principle of absolute being” (al-wujud al-mutlaq) (al-Farabi (1890): 34-7, Trans. In Gutas (1988): 240-2).

In these corrections of what he takes to be the previous misreading of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, al-Farabi affirms that divine science is indeed an important part of metaphysics, while acknowledging that only a very small portion of Aristotle’s text - a single book-is devoted to the topic. Perhaps this is why al-Farabi declared at the end of his Falsafah Aristutalis (“Philosophy of Aristotle”) that “we do not possess metaphysical science” (1961a): 133; (1969a): 130; cf. Druart (1987a): 35). But major doctrine of Neoplatonic metaphysic known to al-Farabi, the theory of emanation has as its focal point divine beings and their causal links to the sublunar world. And it is this doctrine that provides the metaphysical foundations for al-Farabi’s two most important personal works, al-Madinah al-fadilah and al-Siyasah almadaniyyah (“The Political Regime”), also known as the Mabadi’ al-mawjudat (“Principles of Beings”) in virtue of its metaphysical parts.

The theory of emanation espoused by al-Farabi in these works rests upon the twin pillars of Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology and the metaphysics of the divine. The framework of emanation is provided by cosmology. The universe is viewed as a series of concentric spheres: the outermost sphere, called the first heaven; the sphere of the fixed stars; and the spheres of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus Mercury, and fainally, the Moon. The mechanics of emanation as a theory of sources. In its basic premise it represents a radical departure from Aristotle, for whom God was not an efficient cause of the very existence (wujud) of all other beings, but only the first cause of motion in the universe. Many of the properties of al-

Farabi’s emanational God are Aristotelian, however: God is one, immaterial, eternal, and acts of necessity. Most importantly, however, God is characterized by the activity of self-contemplation; there is an overflow or emanation (fayd) from God of a second intellect. The second intellect, like God, is characterized by the activity of selfcontemplation; but it must, in addition to this, contemplate God himself. By virtue of its thinking of God, it generates yet a third intellect; and by virtue of its selfcontemplation, it generates the celestial sphere that corresponds to it, the first heaven. Al-Farabi then repeats this dyadic pattern of emanation for each sphere in the cosmology and its corresponding intellect, arriving at a total of ten intellects other than God. 13 The terminus of the emanation process is our own sublunary world, whose corresponding intellect is none other than the agent intellect familiar from Aristotle’s De anima (al-Farabi (1985):88-107; (1964)47-8, 52-3).

Through its culmination in the agent intellect, al-Farabi’s adoption of the Neo-Platonist metaphysics of emanation provides the means whereby Aristotelian philosophy can be placed in a more systematic framework than the Stag rite’s own writings allow. For in Aristotelian terms, natural philosophy includes the study of psychology: hence one and the same being, the agent intellect, represent the upper terminus of physics and the lower terminus of metaphysics. In this way, emanation allow al-Farabi not only to fill in the gap between the theological and ontological elements within metaphysics but also to forge a link between the theoretical sciences of metaphysics and physics that is not clearly articulated by Aristotle himself.

Practical philosophy

The unity that al-Farabi forges between the theoretical sciences of metaphysics and psychology is also mirrored in al-Farabi’s political philosophy which, along with logic, represents the major focus of his philosophical writings. While the rest of al-Farabi’s philosophy is generally Aristotelian in character, supplemented by the Neo-Platonist elements that have already been noted, al-Farabi’s political philosophy is Platonic, and reflects Plato’s ideal of basing political philosophy upon metaphysical foundations. Thus, al-Farabi’s two principal works on political philosophy-the Siyasah madaniyyah and the Madinah fadilah -also contain the fullest expression of his metaphysical views. Although al-Farabi does devote some attention in these and other works of practical philosophy to ethical issues such as the nature of practical wisdom, the moral virtues and deliberation, most of al-Farabi’s interest is on political theory, in particular the requirements of the ideal state and its ruler, and the question of the relationship between philosophy and religion within such a state.

In his work the Tahsil al-sa‘adah (“Attainment of Happiness”), al-Farabi argues for the real and conceptual identity of the notions of philosopher, legislator and Imam, and claims that the diversity of religious and philosophical labels reflects nothing more than different emphases on distinct aspects of a single reality. This means, in good Platonic fashion that those who do not attempt to apply their theoretical perfection to practical and political pursuits cannot claim to be true philosophers: such people remain what al-Farabi calls “vain” or futile philosophers.

Given the need to communicate this philosophy to the general populace, such a philosopher must presumably also have rhetorical perfection to practical and political pursuits cannot claim to be true philosophers: such people remain what al-Farabi calls “vain” or futile philosophers.

Given the need to communicate this philosophy to the general populace, such a philosopher must presumably also have rhetorical poetic and imaginative abilities, and thus fulfil as well the conditions of prophecy outlined in the psychological portions of al-farabi’s political works (al-Farabi (1981b) 89-97, (1969a): 43-9; cf. Mahdi (1972a): 188-92).

Of course, al-Farabi recognizes that the ideal combination of prophecy and philosophy, religious and political leadership, and moral and intellectual virtue in a single ruler is something that is seldom if ever realized in political practice. 15As a result, the harmony between philosophical and religious elects that is theoretically possible, but which requires a very specific historical development and fulfilment of these ideal conditions, is not easy, and perhaps even impossible, to realize in practice (al-Farabi (1969b): 152-7). Thus both of al-Farabi’s major political treatises also outline the varieties of departures from the ideal state that may occur, following the model of Plato’s discussion of virtuous and vicious political regimes in the Republic. Al-Farabi classifies the corruptions of the ideal political union into three general categories: ignorant, wicked and errant cities, each of which has several different types within it. The ignorant cities all have in common their failure to comprehend the true nature of humanity, its place in the cosmos and, hence, its natural end. Their ignorance of human theology, they substitute some other false goal for the true end discerned by philosophy. Al-Farabi isolates the following varieties of ignorant cities: (1) indispensable cities, which seek mere subsistence as their goal; (2) vile cities, which seek only to accumulate wealth; (3) base cities, which exist solely for the sake of sensual gratification; (4) democratic cities, whose goal is honour and fame; (5) tyrannical cities, in which power and domination of others is the principal goal; and (6) democratic cities, in which there is no single motivating end, but each citizen is left to seek whatever he or she deems best.

The wicked and errant states are those which possess now or once possessed some sort of knowledge of the true human end, but fail none the less to follow that knowledge. Wicked cities are those in which the virtuous end is deliberately abandoned for another one, whereas errant cities are those in which the leader personally has true knowledge of the proper end that his city should follow, but deceives the citizens by presenting them with false images and representations of that end. Finally, al-Farabi also gives some attention to those whom he calls “the weeds” in the virtuous cities, people who, for lack of ability or other baser motives, inhabit the virtuous city and conform to its laws, while failing to participate personally in its goals (al-Farabi (1964): 74-108, Mahdi and Lerner (1963):35-56; (1985)” 228-59). 16

Although one purpose of the foregoing classification of corrupt states is clearly to educate philosophers so as to enable them to become virtuous leaders of virtuous regimes, al Farabi’s focus upon the proper discernment of the true human end as the defining characteristic of the virtuous city reminds us that the ultimate motivation of his political philosophy is to ensure that the conditions for happiness are met by all people as far as possible. For this reason, al-Farabi concludes his classification of cities and citizens with a consideration of human happiness in eschatological terms, in which reward and punishment in the afterlife is interpreted in accordance with al-Farabi’s belief that human happiness ultimately consists in the assimilation with the agent intellect that is achieved when one reaches the stage of acquired intellect. 17Only the citizens of the virtuous city will be able to achieve this goal and thereby survive after death when their actualized intellectual souls separate from their bodies. Al-farabi implies that this immortality is not personal, however, since the body, the principle of numerical diversity within the human species, is no longer present, and hence “the differences of the souls are equally indeterminable in number” (1985: 264-5).

Those who lived in ignorance were not culpable: they will simply be annihilated as a natural consequence of their failure to actualize their intellectual powers, which is the condition for the soul’s survival after death. The same is true for the citizens who have been misled by their leaders in the errant cities. Punishment in the afterlife is reserved for the citizens of the wicked cities and the rulers of the errant cities, who possessed knowledge of the true end but deliberately rejected it to pursue other ends. Their punishment consists in the simple continuance of their corrupt desires after death, desires which, because of their bodily roots, can no longer be fulfilled and so eternally torment their possessors (al-Farabi (1985): 258-77).

Al-Farabi’s subsequent influence

The picture that emerges from the variety of al-Farabi’s writings is an impressive one.

Al-Farabi’s logical and epistemological achievements, which have only recently come to light, have a very modern ring to them: his interest in careful linguistic analysis as an essential tool for philosophical precisions, and his broadening and evaluated, have a strong affinity with recent trends in philosophy, in particular within the Anglo-American world. But in al375

Farabi these interests were as much a result of the peculiar historical circumstances in which he practiced philosophy as were his political and metaphysical teachings. They reflected the need to address seriously the sometimes competing claims between philosophy and religion, and to find a niche for philosophy and its discourse in an Arabic and Islamic milieu. Al-Farabi’s interest in types of rationality, in modes of discourse and argumentation, and in the relations between ordinary and philosophical challenge, although they remain philosophically important in their own right.

The linguistic sensitivity that al-Farabi displays, his concern to communicate philosophy to a wide variety of audiences and his careful efforts to assimilate the Greek philosophical tradition into an Islamic context are all hallmarks of al-Farabi’s writings that help to explain the high esteem in which he was held by subsequent philosophers in the Islamic, Jewish, and to a lesser extent Christian, traditions. We have seen the debt that Avicenna openly acknowledged to al-farabi up as a key authority, especially in logic, psychology and political philosophy. In the Jewish philosophical tradition, Moses Maimonides gave al-Farabi the highest praise among all his predecessors, once again in the area of logic in particular: “As for works on logic, one should only study the writings of Abu Nasr al-Farabi. All his writings are faultlessly excellent.

One ought to study and understand the. For he is a great man” (Introduction to Moses Maimonides (1963) Ix ). In the Latin West, although al-Farabi’s writings were less extensively translated than those of Avicenna and Averroes, works like his Ihsa’al-ulum and Risalah fi’l-aql were of central importance in the early transmission of Aristotelian thought, and gave Christian thinkers their first glimpse of the wealth of new philosophical material that was to follow.

Notes

1- Al-Farabi’s full name was Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalugh (or Uzlugh) al-Farabi. The principal medieval biographies from which information on his life are: Ibn al-Nadim (d.380/990) (1979): 599-602, 329-31; al-Mas‘udi (d.345/956) (1960): 39-41; Sa ‘id ibn Ahmad ibn Sa‘id al-Taghlibi (d.463/1070) (1985): 137-40; Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah (d. 646/1248) (1903): 277-9. For convenient summaries of this data see Walzer (1965): 778-9, as well as Walzer’s Introduction to al-Farabi (1985): 2-5; Fakhry (1983): 107-9; and Madkour (1963): 450-2.

2- On the School of Baghdad see Meyerhoff (1930).

4- See Walzer, Introduction to al-Farabi (1985): 2-5 for a summary of these tale; convincing arguments against their historicity are given in Mahdi (1990):693-4, 705-7, 712-13.

3- Scholarly Interpretations of al-Farabi’s metaphysical and psychological views written before the mid twentieth century must be approached with caution because of the attribution to al-Farabi of a number of treatises now believed to have been written by Avicenna or one of his later followers.

These treatises include the Fusus alhikam (in al-Farabi (1890); see Georr (1941-6) and Pines (1951); the Ta’liqat fi’lhikmah (in al-Farabi (1927); see Michot (1982); the Zinunal-kabir alyunani (in al-Farabi (1927); see Druart (1987a): 25 n. 9); and Ithbat (in al-Farabi (1927); see madkour (1963): 452). The ‘Uyun al-masa’il and the related Da’awi qalbiyyah are also of doubtful authenticity (see Cruz Hernandez (1950-1); Rahman (1958): 21-2), although recently Lameer has argued for restoring the ‘Uyun as genuinely Farabian (Lameer (1994): 24-30).

Rahman’s arguments against this text remain compelling, however. Marmura (1985): 347 and Lameer (1994): 33-43 have questioned as well the authenticity of the Kitab al-jam ‘bayna ra’yay alhakimayn Aflatun al-ilahi wa- Aristutalis (al-Farabi 1960b), a work in which the traditional Neoplatonic theme of the identity of Aristotle’s and Plato’s teachings is upheld, and the sole text in which al-Frabi treats the spurious Theology of Aristotle (based on Plotinus, Enneads, 4-6) as a genuinely Aristotelian Text.

4- For general discussions of al-Farabi’s logic in its historical context see Abed (1991), Elamrani-Jamal (1983), Eskanasy (1988), Gatje (1971a), Hasnawi (1985), Langhade (1981) and Zimmermann in al-Farabi (1981a).

5- The title of the work is usually translated as Book of Letters, although Book of particles is equally possible. For studies of this text see Arnaldez (1977), Vajda (1970), Mahdi (1972b).

6- For further consideration of al-Farabi’s poetics, see Black (1989 and 1990), Galston (1988), Heinrichs (1978) and Kemal (1991).

7- In addition to the discussion in the Kitab al-burban, al-Farabi also wrote a short independent work on this topic, called the Shara’it al-yaqin (“Conditions of Certitude”, in al-Farabi (1986-7) 4: 97-104).

8- For a discussion of other aspects of al-Farabi’s treatment of Aristotelian demonstration, see Galston (1981).

9- The only appearances of this term occur in the spurious ‘Uyun al-masa’il and Fusus al-hikam.

10- Often these are rendered as “possible” and “active”. In the Madinah fadilah, al-Farabi also uses the Alexandrian term “material intellect” as a synonym for the potential intellect.

11- These are the subdivisions of the meanings of “intellect” within psychology, which is itself only one of six meanings of the term identified in the Risalah fi’l-aql-aql.

12- The use of a dyadic model separates al-Farabi from earlier Neoplatonic thinkers and from the later Avicenna, who use triadic models to account for the emanation of a distinct rational soul for each celestial body. Al-Farabi does not distinguish the soul as mover of the sphere from its intellect. See, for example, al-Farabi (1964): 34-5; 53.

13- Thereare numerous studies of al-Farabi’s practical philosophy, including Butterworth (1983): 226-30, Daiber (1986a), Mahdi (1975a and 1975b) and Strauss (1945 and 1957). The most comprehensive is Galston (1990).

14- Al-Farabi also allows a plurality of rulers to pool their diverse talents if no one person can be found to combine all of the qualities needed by the virtuous ruler (al-Farabi (1985): 253-4).

15- Al-Farabi also outlines in some detail the nature of the false religious beliefs that underlie the ignorant and errant views of the human end in al-Farabi (1985): 286-329.

16- Of course, the reports about al-Farabi’s views in his lost Nicomachean Ethics commentary have made the interpretation of these passages problematic.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1- Al-Bayhaqi, Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Zayd (1946) Tarikh hukama al-Islam, ed. M.Kurd ‘Ali (Damascus).

2- Al-Farabi (1890) Alfarabi’s philosophische Abhandlungen, ed. F. Dieterici (Leiden). (1927) Rasa’il al-Farabi: (Hyderabad).

3- (1948): Risalah fi’l-‘aql, ed. Maurice Bouyges (Beirut).

4- (1959): “Kitab al-shi’r li-Abi Nasr al-Farabi”, ed. Mushin Mahdi, Shi’r, 3:91-6.

5- (1960a): Sharh al-Farabi li-Kitab Aristutalis fi al-‘ibarah, ed. W. Kutsch and S.Marrow (Beirut).

6- (1960b): Kitab al-jam‘ bayn ra’yay alhakimayn Aflatun al-ilahi wa-Aristutalis, ed. Albert Nader (Beirut).